The Jaguar Freeway

A bold plan for wildlife corridors that connect populations from Mexico to Argentina could mean the big cat’s salvation

Given a safe passage, jaguars will wander hundreds of miles to breed, even swimming across the Panama Canal. (Steve Winter / Panthera)
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Rabinowitz began studying jaguars in the early 1980s. He lived among the Maya in the forests of Belize for two years, capturing, collaring and tracking the animals for the New York Zoological Society (now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society). Many of the jaguars Rabinowitz studied were shot by locals. He also encountered black-market traders, one with 50 jaguar skins. “It didn’t take a brain surgeon to see the writing on the wall,” he says. He couldn’t just gather data and watch the slaughter. He lobbied government officials to create a protected area for the cats, and in 1984, Belize’s Cockscomb Basin became the world’s first jaguar preserve. Now en­compassing about 200 square miles, it is part of the largest contiguous forest in Central America. Jaguars are now thriving in Belize, where ecotourism has made them more valuable alive than dead.

But Rabinowitz despaired over the animals’ decline elsewhere. And he worried that jaguars in the Cockscomb Basin and other isolated preserves would become inbred over time, making them weak and susceptible to hereditary disease. So he conceived a grand new conservation strategy to link up all the populations in the Americas. Once linked, members of different jaguar populations could, in theory, roam safely between areas, breed with one another, maintain genetic diversity—and improve their survival odds.

“Saving a wide-ranging mammal species throughout its entire range has never been attempted before,” says Rabinowitz, who is CEO of Panthera, a wild cat conservation organization founded in 2006 by New York entrepreneur Thomas Kaplan. Panthera’s staff includes George Schaller, widely considered the world’s pre-eminent field biologist. In the 1970s, Schaller and Howard Quigley, who now directs Panthera’s jaguar program, launched the world’s first comprehensive jaguar study.

Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative aims to connect 90 distinct jaguar populations across the Americas. It stems from an unexpected discovery. For 60 years, biologists had thought there were eight distinct subspecies of jaguar, including the Peruvian jaguar, Central American jaguar and Goldman’s jaguar. But when the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in Frederick, Maryland, part of the National Institutes of Health, analyzed jaguar DNA from blood and tissue samples collected throughout the Americas, researchers determined that no jaguar group had split off into a true subspecies. From Mexico’s deserts to the dry Pampas of northern Argentina, jaguars had been breeding with each other, wandering great distances to do so, even swimming across the Panama Canal. “The results were so shocking that we thought it was a mistake,” Rabinowitz says.

Panthera has identified 182 potential jaguar corridors covering nearly a million square miles, spanning 18 nations and two continents. So far, Mexico, Central America and Colombia have signed on to the initiative. Negotiating agreements with the rest of South America is next. Creating this jaguar genetic highway will be easier in some places than others. From the Amazon north, the continent is an emerald matrix of jaguar habitats that can be easily linked. But parts of Central America are utterly deforested. And a link in Colombia crosses one of Latin America’s most dangerous drug routes.

A solitary animal that leaves its birthplace in adolescence to establish its own territory, a jaguar requires up to 100 square miles with sufficient prey to survive. But jaguars can move through any landscape that offers enough fresh water and some cover—forests, of course, but also ranches, plantations, citrus groves and village gardens. They travel mostly at night.

The pasture where Holyfield was collared that night in Brazil’s Pantanal is part of two “conservation ranches” overseen by Panthera with Kaplan’s financial support. The ranches straddle two preserves, making them an important link in the corridor chain and together creating 1,500 square miles of protected habitat. On an adjacent property, Holyfield might have been shot on sight as a potential cattle-killer. But not here.

These ranches are expected to be more successful than others by using modern husbandry and veterinary techniques, such as vaccinating cattle herds. Because disease and malnutrition are among the leading killers of cattle in this region, preventing those problems more than makes up for the occasional animal felled by a jaguar.

“My vision was to ranch by example,” Kaplan says, “to create ranches that are more productive and profitable and yet are truly jaguar-friendly.”

As a child growing up near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Kaplan read an article about tigers written by Schaller, then of the New York Zoological Society, which inspired his interest in cat conservation. Kaplan went on to track bobcats near his home, and he dreamed of becoming a cat biologist. Instead, he got a PhD in history from Oxford University and became an entrepreneur, earning a fortune in gold, silver, platinum and natural gas. Kaplan was intrigued by Rabinowitz’s book Jaguar and says Rabinowitz “followed the life path that I would have if I were a less acquisitive person.”


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